Connecting

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Image courtesy of Trevor Leyenhorst

One of my favourite television shows when I was a kid was a program by James Burke called Connections. For those of you who don’t know the series, it was a documentary style show that showed how one item could lead to a completely different thing through a series of ‘connections’. The show attempted to show how one item relied on a series of things happening in order for it to occur.

During my MA TESOL program, I was required to read and interact with the book Language Teaching Awareness: A Guide to Exploring Beliefs and Practices by Jerry G. Gebhard and Robert Oprandy (1999). In this book, the authors explore various ways in which teachers can become more aware of the way they approach their teaching. The process of reading and journalling about what I was learning was quite eye-opening. I became a more reflective teacher as a result and that has continued through the use of this blog and through other means.

In chapter seven of this book, Oprandy talks about ways in which we can reflect on the connections we make between our personal life and our teaching. He does this through a series of connecting questions that he wrote for himself. He encourages teachers to take time to write their own questions based on what they are experiencing. For the sake of this post, I have decided to summarize the responses to his own questions and then attempt to answer those same questions for myself. Here are his results:

  1. Do I play the believing game both in and out of the classroom? – Oprandy is referring to how we ‘rate’ the ability of our students and others and then use that system to give or take control from that person. If we feel a student or even teacher is not up to the task, we will pressure and observe them more than someone we feel can complete it. These labels are not healthy and we need to become more aware of how we are judging our students.
  2. Do I reflect on teaching and learning in and out of the classroom? – Oprandy shares how he is always on the lookout for authentic material that can be used in the classroom. He also mentions how he observes the way parents interact with their children in order to think about ways in which he can help his students.
  3. Am I developing myself personally and professionally? – Oprandy encourages teachers to become involved in conferences and workshops, reading books and journal articles, and being involved within your workplace such as through peer-observation, sharing ideas, and setting goals. He also promotes the idea of getting involved in something outside of your profession that can help you develop personally. For Oprandy, he was able to take an art class and was able to make connections to his professional work as well.
  4. Am I learning a language (or languages) and skills or subjects not directly related to language teaching? – Oprandy strongly suggests language teachers to become a language student themselves in order to gain a better understanding of what it feels like for our students.
  5. Am I real in and out of school? – Oprandy shares how he wishes to be someone his students feel is trustworthy and open. He also hopes that his students feel understood and not seen as lesser than the instructor.
  6. How does language teaching fit into my vision of who I am (becoming) and how I’d like the world to be? – Oprandy considers himself a ‘global citizen’ and his years as a trainer with the Peace Corps helped to become more compassionate and understanding to those from other cultures.

So how would I answer these for myself?

Do I play the believing game both in and out of the classroom?

If I am to be totally honest, I would have to say that I probably do. I certainly wouldn’t do that consciously, but my human nature, especially when I get tired, slips in and takes over. I have to remind myself that each student has a different story about how they ended up in my classroom. They may have other things to contend with such as a learning disability or personal issues. Students might be homesick or going through culture shock. Just because one students is making more progress than another shouldn’t change how I approach either student. This is something I need to keep in the forefront of my mind as I enter the classroom and as I look over their work.I am also guilty of doing this with my colleagues as well. Again, I don’t want to do this, but I know that it comes out in various ways. When I am actively think about it, I try to support my fellow teachers by listening to what they have to share and to learn from them instead of just think of ways that I can ‘help’ them (ie. telling them what to do). It hurts me to think of the ways that I have probably labelled new teachers as too inexperienced to possibly help me in any way. For those that I have done that to, I apologize.

Do I reflect on teaching and learning in and out of the classroom?

This is a little easier to answer. A little over a year and half ago, I made a commitment to connecting with other teachers through Twitter. It has been a whirlwind ever since as I have made some amazing contacts, been part of some incredible conversations, and even made a number of friends around the world. I can’t believe how much it has changed how I see myself and my profession. I know it won’t be the same for everyone, but I would encourage others to engage with others professionally through direct interactions (ex. conferences and seminars), or online (ex. blogs or social media). Be prepared to have parts of your professional world turned upside-down as you reflect on how you go about things. I look back over some of the tweets or comments I have made and I realise that I am changing as I learn more about myself and how I teach. I have even been part of a new endeavour in the ELT Research Blog Carnival and I am amazed by what I have learned from others through their thoughtful reflections.

Am I learning a language (or languages) and skills or subjects not directly related to language teaching?

When I was living in Lithuania, I was committed to learning Lithuanian not just so I could communicate, but also so I could understand the culture a bit better and also to grow as a teacher. Sadly, since I have been back in Canada, I have stopped my language learning except for a very short spurt of ‘learning’ some Spanish. I probably should look into picking up another language, but I may also look into taking up something else to help me reflect on my teaching through other means. I am not sure what that looks like, but it is something that is on my agenda for this fall.

Am I real in and out of school?

I try my best to be real in whatever I do. I don’t like it when I feel like someone is putting on a show for me, so why would I do that for them? It didn’t do it when I worked as a salesperson, and I don’t want to do it in my classroom. I see my students as real people with real needs, personalities, and stories to share. I learn so much from them and I enjoy being around them. I stress respect for one another in my classroom and I know that I get it back from them. I appreciate it and I know they enjoy getting it in return.

How does language teaching fit into my vision of who I am (becoming) and how I’d like the world to be?

This is a big question that could probably do with a whole blog post on its own. I see English teaching as I would any other skill or trade. It is often an essential part of that student’s work and personal life and for many, it is a way of providing for themselves or their family. As an EAP instructor, I love being a part of the journey that each student is on to get the education they need to excel in their chosen field. It sometimes frustrates me when I hear stories of people getting their ESL certification just to fulfil their desire to travel the world on someone else’s dime. Some of those teachers care deeply about their students and truly want them to grow, but sadly, this isn’t always the case. For some, the students are a means to their ends. I believe those students deserve better. Students are often paying money and using up what little time they have to learn English and the teacher only wants to have fun and move on. I think classes should be fun, but also rewarding. Our motives should be clear from the beginning so students have a choice to be in your class or to find someone who will help them.

That is it from my end of things. I would challenge any of you to blog about your answers to these questions or to any other reflective questions you come up with. I would love to hear your stories.

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